By Atara Kaye
Joe makes a Hanukkah party and invites all his friends, he spends a lot of money, time and energy in preparation and is so excited that it will be a success. The party comes along and all his friends arrive, he thinks everything will be great! However he hears the doorbell ring and Uncle Sam who is NOT invited, is at the door. Sam is rude and obnoxious, he always makes a mess with the food and is rude to your friends. YOU CANNOT have Sam at the party!
There’s that old Jewish saying “two Jews, three opinions” which is usually interpreted along the lines of Jewish being argumentative or enjoying a good debate, but this saying can also illustrate the idea in psychology of perception. Needless to say, this psychological concept of perception is a universal idea, applying to all people, not just Jews.
How does perception work? Take the way different people might react when hearing the scenario of Joe and his Hanukkah party dilemma. Reactions can differ drastically, with some emphasizing with Joe and others thinking the scenario not to be such an issue, and would instead see it from Sam’s point of view. Some might be outraged and feel that if it happened to them, their party would be completely ruined. Some would justify kicking Sam out of the house, others would likely run to their room and cry. Referring back to that Jewish proverb, some will be conflicted and respond with several (even contradictory) responses of how to deal with this scenario. But why do people have different responses to the same situation and perceive the same exact scenario so very differently?
Each and every person’s life is unique, and so is the individual’s perception of events, even where multiple people share that same experience. The reason is that people do not perceive the event exactly as a replica of the world, rather it is coloured by a mixture of their experiences. Their past experiences are stored in their long term memory and helps them understand what is happening right in front of them by comparing this event to past experiences. In psychology, this is called top-down processing (Westen, Burton & Kowalski, 2006). Such as, in the past Joe didn’t like Sam, so Joe will now perceive Sam as a threat. The fact that Joe even remember who Sam is, comes from the retrieval of his semantic memory, which then transfers information from his long term memory, to help identify the present situation.
Our varied reactions to the same event also has to do with the way we develop expectations (or schemas) for how events should be. As with our perception, this too is shaped by our memories of previous experiences. For example, Joe’s idea of an awesome party has to do with his idea of a fun time which usually involves hanging out with his friends. Those pleasant memories do NOT include Sam. So with the arrival of Sam at the party, Joe gets upset that his expectation of a fun time is now being ruined. By contrast, other people would have fond memories of a super awesome party that almost always including that one annoying guy who always shows up. For those people, a party is fun regardless of someone like Sam attending, and it’s likely that without him the party just wouldn’t be the same…
For another example of schemas, check out this visual illusion based on individual perception.
The practical benefits of understanding the idea of perception include helping us understand our own emotional responses. If we have a strong reaction to something, we might reflect on the situation and ask ourselves what our reaction was and why? What previous experiences might be shaping our current responses? Was our reaction legitimate or unfounded in the current situation? By recognising that our perception of an event is unique, based on our past experiences, we can be more aware of our personal responses. And through this kind of reflection we can examine if our initial reaction is really appropriate.
This can also help us in relationships with our partners, family members or friends; when we reflect on other people’s initial reactions or responses we can recognise that their response can be based on a previous negative or positive experience. Through this reflection and deeper understanding of another’s perception, we can be more sensitive to them and better understand how to love and support each other..
The next time you are in a situation and find yourself arguing with your friends or family about how you should respond, think about the psychology of perception. The way each individual experiences the situation is unique, shaped by our personal histories; our initial reactions may need to be moderated accordingly. When one reflects on how they perceive the situation, they can have more control over their responses and strengthen their relationships through a balanced response.
Questions to think about.
- How would you respond to the arrival of an uninvited guest?
- How would you like to respond, when an uninvited guests comes to your party?
- Or take this reflection further, how would you like to respond to an unscheduled change that can be perceived as negative?
See this video of a great way to deal with a similar situation such as Joe and his Hanukkah party dilemma.
BBC. (2010). Try The McGurk Effect! – Horizon: Is Seeing Believing? – BBC Two. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0&feature=youtu.be&t=31s
Oliver, Joe. (2011). The Unwelcome Party Guest – an Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Metaphor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYht-guymF4
Westen, D., Burton, L. J., & Kowalski, R. (2006). Psychology: Sensation and Perception. Australian and New Zealand edition. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. pp. 161-173.